Two years before Shannon Bigley was crushed by the bucket of a Caltrans-operated front loader while sleeping in a Modesto homeless encampment, she was desperate to earn back custody of her children.
Her daughter and son were 3 and 2, respectively, when she lost custody of them during one of her many struggles with drug addiction and homelessness. Her mother died of a stroke around the same time. Drug treatment facilities wouldn’t accept her because of a medical condition.
When she died on Aug. 1, 2018, at the age of 32 she was alone in a city where she had no roots.
Her death was the tragic end to a difficult life that also had its bright moments.
“She had a roller-coaster ride with drug addiction from the time she was a young adult all the way through,” said family friend Tanya Vanoostende. “She had her ups and downs but she had some good streaks.” During those good times, she said, Bigley “was happy-go-lucky, she was in to all kinds of activities with the kids, making sure they went to the park.”
Vanoostende said Bigley tried to get into treatment but no facility would accept her because she had MRSA, a highly infectious staph infection that would flare up when she was under stress.
“She would get sores on her arms and nobody would want to touch her,” Vanoostende said. “She was really screwed from the beginning. Even the courts that took her kids wouldn’t even help her.”
Shannon’s father, Maurice Bigley, said his daughter’s problems started when she was 8 and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Her dad was in the Navy and they were living on a base in Whidbey Island, Washington, at the time.
Shannon Bigley was riding her bicycle on a path near a playground when another child rode down a hill and crashed into her. She was knocked off her bike and struck the left side of her head on a curb.
She spent over a month in the hospital, Maurice Bigley said.
After the accident, he said his daughter had impulse-control issues, struggled to make friends and remained childlike in some ways.
Maurice Bigley called Shannon a “flower child” born in the wrong decade.
She’d paint instead of carve pumpkins at Halloween because she said they’d no longer be pumpkins if she cut into them.
She loved animals and had all sorts of pets: a pigeon named Starlight she raised in her bedroom and a kitten she brought home from the bus stop one day and fed with an eye dropper.
Maurice Bigley said Shannon dreamed of traveling the United States in a Volkswagen bus with Starlight and her pet goat.
“She wanted to go back to Virginia to see where she was born and go along the Canadian border; she had never met any Canadians and wanted to,” Maurice Bigley said. “She wanted to touch water in the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean with her feet.”
Shannon Bigley’s parents moved from Virginia to Oregon when she was a baby and divorced not long after. Maurice Bigley got full custody of her.
They moved to Washington for five years then went back to the tiny town of Days Creek, Oregon, where she stayed until she was 18.
Vanoostende, who for a period lived with Shannon Bigley’s mother and was related to her by marriage, said Shannon would spend summers in Stockton with them when she was younger and moved there full time to live with her mother after turning 18.
Stockton is where Bigley met her husband, Earnest Gray.
Gray said he and Bigley got married after finding out she was pregnant with their daughter.
Vanoostende said Shannon Bigley and Gray would split up and get back together often. They had trouble maintaining housing and sometimes lived in their car.
Gray declined to discuss what led to he and Bigley losing custody of their children but said he is now seeking to get them back.
Their daughter turned 7 on Saturday and their son will be 6 next month.
Both Gray and Maurice Bigley have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Caltrans.
Shannon Bigley died just before 6 a.m. on Aug. 1, when a Caltrans worker drove a front loader into the grassy ravine where she was sleeping and inadvertently struck her with the bucket, according to an autopsy report.
People at the homeless encampment off of Kansas said Bigley had been staying there for several months. A director at a shelter in Stockton where Bigley had been receiving services hadn’t seen her since April 2018, according to a coroner’s report.
What brought Bigley to Modesto is unknown.
Vanoostende now lives in Modesto and Bigley had visited her there before but she last saw her around Christmas 2017.
“If she could thumb it here to Modesto I’m sure she could find her way (to me). She knew I would have been there in a hot flash second,” Vanoostende said.
But she said usually when Bigley was using “she stayed away from me because she thought I would be upset with her for choosing that lifestyle. Every time I reached out she would pull away further.”
Despite her faults, Bigley loved her children and wanted the best for them and she didn’t deserve to die alone, Vanoostende said.
“She had every mother’s dream for her kids, (from a good) education to traveling and everything in between, making good memories with her kids.”